Senate approves tweaked T control board

Vote follows pressure from DeLeo, Baker


THE MASSACHUSETTS SENATE late Thursday night agreed to put the MBTA under the management of a fiscal control board, tucking that measure into a $38.1 billion fiscal 2016 that was approved after midnight.

Democrats and Republicans unanimously signed off on the control board compromise brokered between Sen. Thomas McGee and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, with input from the governor’s office.

The measure calls for a five-member control board to be given management authority over the T for at least three years, but no more than five years, and requires it meet at least three times each month.

Gov. Charlie Baker has pushed for a control board, the centerpiece of his broader MBTA reform package that is still being considered by the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. House Speaker Robert DeLeo on Wednesday declared his support for a control board, an idea that gained momentum due to the transit system’s recent dismal performance.

In a statement, Baker said taxpayers contribute over a billion dollars to the MBTA and “millions of riders depend on it to get to work and pay the bills, so we owe it to them to act now and fix the T.”

“Establishing a focused, dedicated group of experts to diagnose and fix the problems of the MBTA is an important first step toward creating the world class transit system the Commonwealth deserves and I am pleased the Senate acted on this measure tonight,” Baker said.

The next step for the budget is a six-member conference committee that will meet secretly to work out scores of differences in the budget bills approved by the House and Senate. The budget covers spending in the fiscal year that begins July 1, and closes an estimated $1.8 billion gap by reining in spending in areas such as MassHealth.

The biggest difference between the bills is a Senate plan to freeze the income tax rate at 5.15 percent to fully pay for an increase in both the earned income tax credit and personal exemptions in an effort to deliver tax relief to low-income workers and families.

Senate leaders say the tax policy changes, taken together, are “revenue neutral.” The House budget didn’t include major changes in tax policy and DeLeo has disputed the Senate’s authority to add the tax measures to the budget.

On Thursday night, the Senate voted 26-13 for another significant tax policy change, approving a Sen. Jason Lewis amendment to raise the excise tax on flavored cigars that the Winchester Democrat said are being marketed to minors.

“What we are trying to do is protect our children,” Lewis said.

While Lewis said the new tax would not apply to regular “adult” tobacco-flavored cigars, Sen. Robert Hedlund argued that tobacco products are already illegal to sell to children, and said it’s not just minors who smoke the fruit-flavored products. He said the flavored-cigar tax policy change should be vetted by a legislative committee, not be added to the budget during a late-night session.

Hedlund also came up short in his effort to strengthen taxpayer protections against public dollars being used to support the 2024 Olympic games bid. The Weymouth Republican’s amendment to prohibit public spending related to the bidding for or hosting of the games, with the exception of already planned transportation-related projects, failed on a 17-22 vote.

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, of Lowell, said the proposal was unnecessary after the Senate already approved a measure requiring passage of a special act of the Legislature before any state funds could be spent in relation to games. She also said it could have been interpreted to preclude the Legislature and governor from hiring a consultant to help the state review Boston 2024’s bid.

The House did not include any provisions related to spending on the Olympics in its version of the budget.

There are many House-Senate budget differences, and lawmakers will need time to merely understand what’s been added to the Senate budget. To expedite proceedings, the Senate just on Thursday adopted 123 amendments on a single vote and then rejected 213 amendments in bulk.

The MBTA control board would be made up of three members of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Board, including the secretary of transportation, and two additional members with experience in transportation finance and mass transit operation.

McGee said that by making sure MassDOT members also serve on the board he feels comfortable that his concerns about disconnecting the transportation system with additional bureaucracy have been addressed.

Baker this week said he had two people in mind for appointment to a control board, but declined to name them.

The governor earlier this year singled out the work of his task force member Katherine Lapp, former head of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, saying she was “really helpful.”

The agreement does not address Baker’s request for an exemption for the MBTA from the “Pacheco Law” governing the privatization of services, and does not give the control board the authority to raise fares beyond what was allowed in the 2013 reform law that put a 5 percent cap every two years on fare hikes.

Baker is holding out hope that his other reforms will prevail.

“I thank Speaker DeLeo for his leadership on this issue, and the House for also including an important provision aimed at granting the T the necessary flexibility to increase both the system’s efficiency and the speed at which reforms may be enacted – and I look forward to the Senate adopting the bipartisan measures to fix our rapid transit system,” he said.

Some transit system advocates are hoping the current focus on MBTA system management reforms will be a prelude to another run at providing additional revenues, which they say are a necessary ingredient to improving the system’s performance.

The Transportation Committee plans a second hearing next Wednesday on the governor’s MBTA bill (H 3347), which includes those requests, and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said he’s still hoping a separate bill addressing those and other matters will come out in June.

In a statement released at 6 a.m. Friday, A Better City President and CEO Rick Dimino said, “Today’s action by the Senate is a great step forward in achieving significant and real reforms at the MBTA. This framework allows for a substantive examination of the finances, operations and governance at the T while preserving the important principle of one unified and integrated, multi-modal transportation agency. We look forward to working with the Baker administration and the legislature as these discussions continue to ensure that Massachusetts has the world class transit system our economy needs to thrive.”

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Matt Murphy

State House News Service
Over three days of debate, the Senate added roughly $80 million in spending to the Ways and Means budget proposal for a variety of programs and agencies, including a Sen. James Welch amendment approved Thursday night to give an extra $6 million to hospitals that serve a disproportionately large share of MassHealth patients at lower reimbursement rates than private payers.

The overall Senate budget passed on a 40-0 vote. House and Senate Republicans supported this year’s budget bills, which call for state spending growth to slow down compared to the current state budget.